by Kathryn Davis
Marine debris, particularly plastic debris, pollutes many aquatic environments. Increasingly, this is a global problem as trash accumulates in the world’s oceans and concentrates in large gyres. Once in the environment, it poses substantial risk to marine life and human health.
To address this problem, Puget Soundkeeper works with the Ocean Conservancy each fall to organize local shoreline and waterway cleanups for the International Coastal Cleanup project. At these events, participants not only remove the accumulated trash they encounter, but each piece is tallied on a detailed data card. These data are contributed to the Ocean Trash Index, providing a snapshot of the types and quantity of debris entering waterways worldwide.
As a regional coordinator for this project, I was invited to participate in the Ocean Conservancy’s 2016 International Coastal Cleanup Asia Pacific Regional Meeting based in Hong Kong. At the meeting, representatives from many Asian countries, Australia, South America and North America sat down to discuss shared strategies for ocean protection.
The conference opened with a cleanup of a small, remote pocket beach. Water bottles, shoes, styrofoam, rope and other plastic packaging were piled several feet thick. After several hours a group of 26 people had filled dozens of large garbage bags. It made no noticeable difference. Worse, new trash could be seen rolling in on the surf. This beach is one of thousands that make up the many island shorelines of Hong Kong.
In comparison, we’re lucky here in Puget Sound. While there are pockets of heavy debris accumulation, we do not experience the levels of marine trash that plague many other parts of the world.
One reason for this is geographical. Puget Sound is directly connected to the Pacific Ocean, but incoming ocean water enters relatively slowly thorough one narrow inlet. This also means that most of the trash is local in origin and will stay here until it is picked up or breaks into pieces too small to remove.
We are connected to the global marine debris issue in other important ways. Plastic does not begin to degrade for at least 500 years, meaning every plastic item ever made still exists in one form or another. The advent of municipal recycling services has made us feel less guilty about our consumption, but the story of what happens after our curbside bins are collected is more complex. Most recyclables are shipped overseas, often to uncertain ends. After being sorted into like materials at regional facilities, plastics enter a complicated matrix of middle men and private processors, sometimes zigzagging the world in search of a post-consumer market. It is very difficult to track these items. Many of these plastics go unused and reenter the waste stream. It is also a highly volatile business, as quantities of source material are not consistent and repurposing plastic is only economically feasible when the price of oil is high.
Microplastics are also increasingly a global issue. In the marine environment, plastic breaks into small pieces that persist indefinitely. Suspended throughout the water column, microplastics are quickly transported around the globe and consumed by the smallest of organisms. From there, they work their way through the food web. They are so ubiquitous that plastic particles can be found in the fish and shellfish sold for human consumption. Today, these small plastic particles can be found in water samples taken from nearly everywhere on earth. They have even been found in remote alpine lakes, deposited through aerial deposition.
The 2016 Puget Sound Cleanup report details the marine trash collected by groups throughout the Puget Sound region in the fall of 2016. All data was submitted to the Ocean Conservancy for inclusion in their global report.
Thank you to everyone who worked hard to keep our waters clean. If your area is not represented, we would love to help set up a cleanup near you this year!